[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]

 

July 24, 2006

 

This week in Israel….. Behind the news with Gershon Baskin

 

The scorecard

 

When I was a young boy growing up in the States I remember watching the evening news reports on casualties in Vietnam. I joined the anti-war movement when I was 10 years old in 1966. One of the reasons that brought me to drag my parents to an anti-war demonstration was the nonchalant way in which the newscasters read the evening scorecard of how many Vietcong and US soldiers were killed. It was as if there was nothing behind the numbers. There were no faces, no families, and no stories of suffering.  Something was very wrong.

 

I have a similar feeling when I watch the news on all three Israeli news programs. While the Israeli channels do put faces and stories of suffering behind the dry figures on the Israeli side, the faces on the other side are almost completely absent. I know that that is the nature of war.  Our society is drafted into the war effort and any sign of “identifying” with the enemy is viewed as treason. The best example of this is the tremendous anger that Arab Members of Knesset are receiving from their fellow politicians and from the media for raising serious questions about the legitimacy of the war. 

 

I do believe that Israel has legitimate cause to bring about a significant change in the south of Lebanon.  Israel was attacked without provocation by Hezbollah, soldiers were killed and others kidnapped.  Over the past six years since the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon Hezbollah forces fortified their positions and deployed some 13,000 rockets aimed at Israel.  So far some 2,200 of those rockets have fallen on the north of Israel.  The UN Security Council recognized that Israel withdrew to the international border, called the “blue line”, and demanded that the Government of Lebanon dismantle the Hezbollah forces, integrate them into the regular Lebanese army and deploy the army along the international border. All other factional militia in Lebanon were disbanded and merged into the army except Hezbollah. The creation of the anti-Syria coalition in Lebanon made up of the Sunnis, the Druze and the Christians which succeeded in pushing Syria out of Lebanon was not successful in forcing the Hezbollah to abide by UN Resolution 1559.

 

Hezbollah was greatly strengthened by the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon which they claimed as a victory for their resistance.  Hezbollah stood for elections in the Lebanese parliament and won 14 seats of the 27 seats allocated to Shiites by the Constitution out of a total of 128 seats in the Parliament; the other Shiite allocated seats are held by Amal – a more moderate Shiite party. Since the Israeli withdrawal, Hezbollah has focused its claims for resistance mainly on the issue of the Shebaa Farms.  Wikpedia has the following information about this area:

Shebaa Farms is a disputed agricultural area consisting of a dozen or so abandoned farms located southwest of Shebaa, a Lebanese village on the northwestern slopes of Mount Hermon, at the junction of Syria, Lebanon and Israel. The area is about 14 kilometres (8.7 mi) in length and averages 2.5 kilometres (1.6 mi) in width, at altitudes of 150 to 1,880 meters (490–6,170 ft). This fertile and well-watered farm land produced barley, fruits and vegetables. There is controversy about whether the Shebaa Farms are part of Lebanon or the Golan Heights, a region claimed by both Israel and Syria.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chebaa_Farms

But the Shebaa farms has served primarily as a fig leaf for Hezbollah to continue to function as a state within a state supported and inspired by Iran and backed by its allies in Damascus.  There are significant forces in Lebanon that would be very happy if Israel succeeds in removing or limiting the Hezbollah presence and strength in Lebanon.  But there is no one there who can support the extent of the damage being done by Israel. More than 360 Lebanese have been killed so far, the majority of them civilians. The physical damage done is almost unfathomable.  Most of the physical damage has little to do with the Hezbollah.  The neighborhoods of south Beirut that have been totally destroyed by Israel are Shiite neighborhoods, but most of the people who lived there before it was destroyed were ordinary citizens.  They may have voted for Hezbollah or ever supported Hezbollah, but most of them were just carrying out their lives, trying to make a living and supporting their families. Many of my friends in Lebanon – Christians and Muslims, have told me that it will take years and billions of dollars to repair the physical damage and decades to repair the mental damages.  Even Lebanese citizens who were in favor of peace with Israel cannot imagine ever agreeing to welcome Israeli citizens to Lebanon.

Israelis are also angry

The more than 2,200 Hezbollah rockets that have fallen on Israel have also created a lot of physical damage and suffering.  While the casualties figures are about 25 killed since the beginning of the war, some 500,000 Israelis have become refugees fleeing from the dangers of the rockets.  Also in Lebanon, it is reported that some 700,000 Lebanese have been forced to flee their homes and many of them will not have homes remaining to return to. Now Chief of Staff Halutz has announced that for every rocket fired at Haifa, the IDF will demolish 10 high rise buildings in Lebanon.  The media in Israel is very good at coving the stories of tragedies and suffering on the Israeli side.  They bring in all of the “big guns” – retired generals and military experts to explain to us “commoners” what the army is doing and what are the intentions of the politicians.  Mostly they speak about their own “brilliant” military careers.  They are titled as being generals in the reserves – but none of them are still in active reserves.  They are retired and their fame is their past, but we are subjected to listen to them replace army and government spokespeople who are less willing to face the public.  Since the beginning of the war, only Israel Channel 10 has attempted to bring some “other” voices – people questioning the basic rationale of the war and its goals. The media clearly serves it part in the war effort and plays a big role in the psychological warfare.  The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah is a master of using the media in his own brand of psychological warfare.  

The Israeli peace camp has begun to take to the streets, but like at the beginning of the war in Lebanon in 1982, only a very small number of people have participated in the demonstrations against the war.  On Saturday night, the second such demonstration was held with about 5,000 participants.  The first petition against the war was published in today's Haaretz.

The news – electronic and written has not reported on the efforts of the peace camp. Instead we are bombarded with the same pictures of the damage of Hezbollah rockets over and over again. It is amazing how many hours these news programs can repeat themselves saying nothing of significance, with such a lack of intellectual stimulation, I at least have more time to read.

The war in Gaza is not the war in Lebanon

The fighting in Gaza which has continued in full force has been pushed to the back burner. With all of the fighting in the north, the public and the media have almost forgotten about the war in Gaza.  More than 300 Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of the fighting, about half of them armed combatants,  who have shot more than 190 Qassam rockets into Israel. Israel continues to pound the north of Gaza with artillery while searching for Qassam launchers on the ground. The kidnapped soldier, Gilead Shalit has still not been heard from although both the head of the Shin Bet and the Prime Minister have said that they believe that he is alive and well. In my own mediation efforts vis-à-vis the Hamas leadership in Gaza, I have also been told that he is alive and well.  If that is the case, then, I have demanded that they produce a sign of life in order to begin to move a process forward that could lead to a cease fire and the release of Shalit and then a prisoner release by Israel.  It appears to me that the leadership of Hamas in Gaza is under a great deal of pressure and that they would like to cooperate on finding a way out of the crisis.  It seems that their hands are tied by the Hamas leadership in Damascus and that they have little or no influence on the kidnappers.

On Saturday night the Hamas announced a unilateral ceasefire, but the announcement did not come from the Prime Minister and was not announced by the Palestinian President either.  Shortly after the announcement, some Hamas members and some members of other factions reported to be part of the cease fire agreement announced that no such agreement was reached. Yesterday, some 9 Qassam rockets were fired at Israel despite the announcement of the cease fire.  Mediation efforts are underway by both private sources, such as IPCRI and by more official bodies, such as the Government of Egypt.  In the last days there has been some coordination by the various attempts to mediate a cease fire arrangement.  Hopefully, these will produce something positive.

 

Gershon Baskin is the Co-CEO of IPCRI – the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.  www.ipcri.org